“Tythel! That’s enough!” Tellias shouted, putting a hand on her shoulder.
He was right, although not for the reason he thought. He thought that it was enough because there were flecks of her blood spraying out with the dragonflame, tiny red motes that burst into steam. That might have been a good enough reason to stop, but the actual reason Tythel was stopping was the only sounds she could hear in the tunnels were the mechanical shuffling of imperiplate in motion.
Tythel tapped her stolen helmet. Tellias reached down and pulled it off her belt, holding it over her head. “I’m ready,” he said.
Tythel nodded, and closed her mouth. Immediately the miasma rushed back towards her, tendrils of vapor hungrily reaching towards her mouth, trying to invade her lungs. Tellias slammed the helmet on her shoulders before they could, flicking a clasp on the side. A soft, rubbery material stretched in to seal around her neck. She had to fight back another round of coughing, not wanting to get blood in the helmet.
She could have sworn the tendrils of miasma slowed when the helmet was clamped into place, almost as if it realized it was thwarted. “You alright in there?” Tellias asked.
Tythel raised her hand and extended the pinky and thumb, a gesture she’d seen soldiers make to indicate affirmation. Tellias grunted from within his imperiplate. “You can’t talk, can you?”
She shook her head. She could feel her throat bleeding. It will heal. I’m sure it will. Or I’m going to choke to death on my own blood. The thought made her want to vomit. The idea of that filling her helmet, and being forced between breathing that and choking to death on miasma, gave her the will to keep it down.
“Their imeriplate troops will still be coming,” Tellias said.
Tythel nodded, and pointed down one of the tunnels. No sounds were coming from it. Tellias nodded and moved to take the lead back to the surface. Tythel didn’t object. She felt the weariness in her bones, and right now wasn’t sure she’d be able to fend off an aggressive sparrow without passing out.
The corpses of the men who had died to the miasma littered the tunnel. They were all completely mummified, and had died trying to flee, scrambling at walls, or clutching at their throats. Tythel shuddered at the sight, of realizing these deaths were all on her head.
It felt different than killing them in battle. That was life or death, kill or be killed. This was the same thing, but…it was also different. It didn’t feel like battle, it felt like murder. They were going to kill you, she reminded herself, but it was a cold comfort. The resistance lives on because of this. That was a bit better, but it didn’t do anything for the empty eye sockets that stared at her in mute horror. “Do you have a songstone?” Tellias asked.
“Just link it to your helmet, then. You’ll be able to contact the resistance. It should be able to read your lip movements, even if you don’t speak.”
Tythel stopped and looked at him, hands splayed out.
“You…don’t know how to do that, do you?”
Tythel shook her head.
“Well, I’ll show you once we’re clear of all this. For now…” Tellias went silent for a moment. “Everyone’s fine,” he said afterwards. “Although they’re worried about running out of air before the lumcasters can cut through. Apparently the base was wider than they expected where they were. They don’t know how long it will take.
If Tythel could speak, she would have sworn. She turned to start heading back down the tunnel. We can wait until the miasma clears, then go in and-
Tellias put a hand on her arm. He didn’t grab her, just a simple gesture to pause her movement. “Your highness. The imperiplate.”
Tythel cocked her head, then pointed down the tunnel urgently. “You still want to go?” Tythel nodded firmly. “You’re worried the imperiplate will get through the rock?” Tythel repeated the nod.
“I wouldn’t be. It will take them hours to dig through the mess you made. As far as they know, the resistance is buried in there and probably dead. I think they’re more a danger to us than to the others.”
Tythel crossed her arms. She didn’t have the words to argue with him, not with her throat like this. But…
“Your highness, please,” he said. “We can’t help them. But we can survive. They’ll be alright. Even if the imperiplate troops cut through…it’s hundreds against a dozen. They’ll win.”
Tythel cocked her head again, this time in thought, and then nodded, turning to head back up the tunnel. She couldn’t hear the imperiplate troops in the other tunnels, not with this much rock between them.
When they broke onto the surface, the sun had risen fully. Harsh sunlight illuminated the battlefield. The corpses of men lay strewn about, and vultures were beginning to circle. The miasma was rising into the air, forming a cloud that tried to reach out towards the scavengers, as if intent on taking as much life as it could.
“The others beat you out of the tunnel,” a voice said, causing both Tellias and Tythel to whirl. Eupheme stepped out from behind a rock, her face a mask of fury. “They got back on the transports and left. I listened to them. They think they’ve won, although they’re sending something called Skimmers to hunt for survivors. We’ll want to be gone by the time they get here.”
Tythel reached out to her, and Eupheme slapped her hand away. “No. After that stunt you pulled, I’m sure you can’t talk. Besides, we’ve got to get out of here.”
“I was going to attach her songstone to her helm-” Tellias started.
Tellias opened his mask, his face hard. “I am still Baron of the Highplains,” he said in a warning tone.
Eupheme stiffened. “And right now, I’m High Queen of not Giving a Damn, your lordship. I’m going to keep the princess alive. It’s what I’m supposed to do.” She shot a venomous glance as Tythel with that word, and Tythel shrunk away from her glare. “And right now, I think it’s very good for the princesses safety that she keeps her mouth shut.”
Without the ability to speak, Tythel could only hang her head. Eupheme nodded curtly. “Come on.”
“Any idea how we’re going to get off this plateau?” Tellias asked.
“We climb,” Eupheme said simply. “At least, the princess and I do. You can use that suit’s arclight to slow yourself down if you jump, right?”
“I’ve never tried it before,” Tellias said.
“No time like the present.” Eupheme said, walking towards the edge. “I scouted the best path down a little while ago.”
“I’m not sure I like-”
“Then find your own way down, your lordship. I’m climbing down with the princess if I have to carry her myself.”
Tellias scowled at Eupheme, but just closed his helmet and continued stalking towards the edge.
“Euph-” Tythel started to croak. The word was cut off, both by the pain of speaking, and from the look Eupheme gave her.
“I said we’ll talk later. Right now, you’re going to listen.” Even as bad as she was at reading human expression, Tythel could not mistake the fury on her friend’s face. “You do not get to decide what is dangerous for me and what isn’t. You do not get to shove me aside. I’ll protect you, your highness. But friends don’t do that to each other.”
Tythel could only nod mutely as they headed towards the edge of the cliff. Eupheme pulled two ropes out of the dirt. They were well buried, and Tythel realized Eupheme had set this up some time ago. “Are you able to climb?” Eupheme asked her, not looking at Tythel.
Tythel held up her hand to show how badly it was shaking. Eupheme nodded. “Then I’m strapping you to my back and we’re going down like that. Any objections?”
Tythel shook her head.
“Good. Oh, and take that flathing helmet off before you run out of air. Miasma’s gone.”
Tythel reached up to do exactly that. The rest of the arrangements were done in silence, Tythel feeling unable to even meet Eupheme’s eyes right now. Eupheme secured Tythel to her back, letting her face out, and handed her an arcwand. “If those skimmers show up, you’ll keep us alive. I’ll get us down. Okay?”
Tythel nodded, feeling tears well up in her eyes as Eupheme’s tone. The tension she could feel in Eupheme’s back lessened some. “Tythel,” she said, her voice still harsh, but not as acerbic as it had been. Eupheme paused as if considering something, then sighed. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be okay. But I got your pack. It’s secure in the bag we’ll be taking down. So…take from that what you will.”
The tears flowed freely now, guilt mixing with relief. Tythel was glad Eupheme couldn’t see them.
It was a long climb to the bottom.